The Supreme Court (SC) has ruled that Republic Act No. 8371 or the Indigenous People’s Rights Act (IPRA) of 1997 does not exempt indigenous people from criminal prosecution.
In a 19-page decision penned by Associate Justice Marvic Leonen, the Court’s Third Division held that the IPRA does not strip the courts of jurisdiction over criminal cases involving indigenous people (IP).
The court said that nowhere in the said law (IPRA) states that courts of law are to abandon jurisdiction over criminal proceedings in favor of mechanisms applying IP customary laws.
The ruling stemmed from the case of Roderick Sumatra, also known as Ha Datu Tawahig, tribal chieftain of Higaonon Tribe.
Sumatra had filed a petition for mandamus with the SC to compel respondent Cebu Regional Trial Court Branch 12 Presiding Judge Estela Alma Singco and her co-respondents, all public prosecutors from Cebu City, to honor a 3 January 2007 resolution issued by a body known as the Dadantulan Tribal Court.
Sumatra was absolved by the Dadantulan Tribal Court of liability for charges of rape and discharged him from criminal, civil, and administrative liability.
The accused plea was anchored on Section 65 of the IPRA which states: “When disputes involve ICCs (Indigenous Cultural Communities/IP (Indigenous Peoples) , customary laws and practices shall be used to resolve the dispute.”
The Court noted that with the passage of the 1987 Constitution, the IPRA was adopted precisely recognizing that indigenous peoples have been “resistant to political, social, and cultural inroads of colonization, non indigenous religions and cultures, and became historically differentiated from the majority of Filipinos.
Among the IPRA’s provisions on self-governance and empowerment is Section 15 which states : “The ICCs/IPs shall have the right to use their own commonly accepted justice systems, conflict resolution institutions, peace building processes or mechanisms and other customary laws and practices within their respective communities and as may be compatible with the national legal system and with internationally recognized human rights.”
The Court cited Section 15 limits indigenous peoples’ “right to use their own commonly accepted justice systems, conflict resolution institutions, peace building processes or mechanisms and other customary laws and practices.
The provision according to the SC explicitly states that this right is applicable only “within their respective communities” and only for as long as it is “compatible with the national legal system and with internationally recognized human rights.”
In its ruling the SC said Section 65 is qualified by Section 15 and said with respect to dispensing justice, resolving conflicts, and peace-building, the application of customary laws and practices is permissible only to the extent that it is in harmony with the national legal system.
Also the ruling stated that a set of customary laws and practices is effective only within the confines of the specific indigenous cultural community that adopted and adheres to it.
With this, the court said it cannot issue a mandamus and likewise directed the trial court to proceed and resolve with dispatch the rape case filed against Sumatra.
The ruling was concurred by Associate Justices Diosdado Peralta, Andres Reyes Jr., Rosmari Carandang and Ramon Paul Hernando.